AHRC Peer Review College 
Thursday, October 30, 2008, 05:37 PM
Posted by Administrator
Yesterday I attended a training day at the AHRC in my capacity as a member of the Peer Review College. Members of the College are asked to provide detailed academic appraisals of grant applications and other bids for different kinds of funding. Each proposal, typically, is evaluated by two reviewers and given a grade. These grades and comments are then considered by a panel of subject specialists who rank the applications, determining who will get awards.

However this system is now being changed slightly. The panels will now be less subject specific, less specialist. They will no longer be offering a further layer of evaluation. Instead they will simply (not that it’s that simple!) be carrying out a comparative analysis of the Peer Review College members’ reports. Principal Investigators (ie the academics chasing the grants) will have been offered the opportunity to respond to any problems or questions raised in these reports – and their responses will also be scrutinised by the panels.

I’d initially had misgivings about these changes but feel more confident about the new system now I’ve learnt more about how it will work. Three expert reviews will now be sought, not just two, and the recruitment of many more academics to the Peer Review College should make it easier for the AHRC to identify really appropriate reviewers for each application.

Whereas previously people served on the specialist panels for three years or more, now the panels will change more regularly, offering more Peer Review College members a chance to participate. Having the chance to discuss the issues at stake with colleagues, and to compare notes on a set of applications, will be extremely helpful, I think. (Normally we work very much in isolation.)

I think the one issue which still troubles me is the instruction that we should not bring our subject expertise into play within the context of these new panels, even if that expertise would help the panel evaluate and rank the applications more precisely. However I can see that there might be some unfairness in raising new objections which the Principal Investigator then has no opportunity to respond to.

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Vampires in Seattle? 
Tuesday, October 28, 2008, 07:28 PM
Posted by Administrator
No of course this doesn’t have anything to do with Alex’s recent jaunt to Microsoft Headquarters in Seattle - which seems to have been very stimulating.

Freddie (son) has recently become a fan of Darren Shan, writer of slightly edgy vampire novels. When I went to Waterstone’s the other day to buy him volumes 4 and 5 in the series I noticed Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight in the same section and decided to give it a go.

I’d never heard of Meyer until I read this interesting article about her unexpected rise to stardom. Her series of novels (set near Seattle) about a teenage girl’s passion for an improbably handsome and virtuous vampire have met with mixed reviews. Some readers think they are depraved and should be banned from school libraries - even though Meyer is in fact a devout Mormon. Others simply think the books are excruciatingly bad.

I have to say that I was hooked from the opening pages – Meyer offers some assured and inventive variations on familiar vampire tropes and the central romance between Bella and Edward is leavened with humour as well as horror. I’ve already bought volumes 2 and 3 ...

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Shaping Fantasies: Responses to Shakespeare’s Magic in Popular Culture 
Thursday, October 16, 2008, 01:53 PM
Posted by Administrator
This was the topic I chose for my inaugural lecture last night – it’s an odd genre as you have to appeal to a general audience (including Freddie aged 10 and Susannah aged 8 in my case) while at the same time showing off your research credentials.

The main focus of the talk was Neil Gaiman’s response to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in his graphic novel Dream Country, but I also discussed a Doctor Who episode (“The Shakespeare Code”), Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies and Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. A fuller and more formal version will be published here.

I’d never used PowerPoint before this semester but knew I couldn’t really talk about Gaiman’s text meaningfully without also showing Charles Vess’s accompanying artwork, so I limbered up for the inaugural by converting all my lectures into slide shows. I’m now a zealous convert to PowerPoint. (I just hope my students are too.)

Alex and the children arrived a bit late but otherwise behaved well.
Susannah’s response: “I knew it all before”

(what, even the bit about neoplatonism?)

Freddie’s (still more crushing) response: “it’s all very well but is that what the writers actually intended?”.

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Myths of Transformation 
Saturday, September 27, 2008, 05:38 PM
Posted by Administrator
I’ve just returned from an excellent conference in Durham, Myths of Transformation, organised (very well) by Ingo Gildenhard. I gave the first paper, A Bug’s Life: Transformation and Science Fiction. This was an exploration of the way ‘upwards’ metamorphoses – into gods or posthumans – are often (perhaps surprisingly) presented as undesirable or problematic. In many cases such ambiguous posthumans are associated with insects, usually ants.

One of the aims of the conference was to pin down more securely some of the key characteristics of metamorphosis and, by extension, to pin down what it means to be (or cease to be) human. With these questions in mind it was fascinating to hear Evan Killick’s account of the Ashéninka people of Peruvian Amazonia. Their world view is quite alien to most Western conceptions of humanity for the Ashéninka perceive ‘humanity’ in a shifting and relative way, and assume that all creatures think that they are ‘human’.

Luke Pitcher’s paper on the relationship between Petronius and the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft was also very memorable. He argued that the motifs of cannibalism and necromancy within Lovecraft’s tales were used as a way of signalling the cannibalistic and necromantic role of the writer who draws on the works of his literary predecessors, reviving and ‘cannibalising’ earlier texts.

I was reminded by this of the journey undergone by Ovid’s tale of Philomela, in which the heroine’s mutilation becomes increasingly more horrific and extreme as it is transformed first by Shakespeare (in Titus Andronicus), then briefly by T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land before reaching a (sticky) end in Sarah Kane’s Cleansed.

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Vanessa and Virginia 
Friday, September 12, 2008, 01:33 PM
Posted by Administrator
A few years ago I wrote a study of sisters in nineteenth-century literature. Here I touched briefly on two real life sisters from the end of the century, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, whose relationship seemed to be characterised by a strange blend of eroticism and rivalry. The sisters are the subject of an excellent novel, Susan Sellers’ Vanessa and Virginia which has just been published by Two Ravens Press.

Although the author is an expert on Woolf she chooses to tell the story through Vanessa’s eyes. Unusually the novel is written in the second person, addressed by Vanessa to her more famous younger sister. This strategy helps Sellers create a particularly charged and intense atmosphere, capturing the shifting and equivocal nature of Vanessa’s feelings for Virginia.

SPOILERS! (Though they won’t be spoilers if you, unlike me, know much about Bloomsbury)

Vanessa’s life was full of bizarre sexual triangles. Soon after her marriage she becomes jealous of her husband Clive Bell’s attraction to Virginia – but also of Virginia’s interest in Clive. Things get weirder. She leaves her husband to go to live with her boyfriend Duncan Grant – and then his boyfriend, David Garnett, moves in too. Weirdest of all, when Vanessa has a child with Duncan, Garnett says he’d like to marry her – and, 24 years later, he does just that.

The relationship between the Vanessa and Virginia, as evoked by Susan Sellers, strongly reminded me of a fascinating novel I read for my own book about sisters, Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons. Cassy’s feelings for her sister Verry are as intense as Vanessa’s for Virginia, both hostile and oddly erotic. On a lighter note I was also reminded of the very effective representation of a pair of similarly high maintenance sisters in the edgy BBC sitcom Outnumbered.

I have to confess to not being a great fan of Virginia Woolf. So when Susan Sellers makes Virginia say ‘Though actually I worry I don’t think enough about my reader’ I found myself nodding vigorously. Happily Susan Sellers does think about her readers and Vanessa and Virginia, as well as being both subtle and beautifully written, has lots of narrative drive. The descriptions of Vanessa’s paintings, the way they reflect and interact with her complex relationships, are particularly effective.

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